How not to manage crises in the European Union

Cecilia Emma Sottilotta analyses limitations in the EU’s responses to major crises and outlines lessons for responding to future challenges

People in masks queue inside a COVID-19 vaccination centre.
People wait for the administration of the COVID–19 vaccine on 23 August 2021 in Bari, Italy. Photo by Donato Fasano via getty images.

As EU citizens face interconnected rises in living costs and energy shortages it remains crucial to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s crisis response efforts. To this day, the EU is still considered by some to be a model of integration to which other regions could aspire. Nonetheless, if we look at how the EU reacted to the eurozone crisis and the COVID–19 pandemic, at least two sets of problems emerge: a gap between research and policy which slowed response, and inadequacies in the academic analyses which informed policy decisions. In this blogpost I investigate these limitations and provide recommendations for EU policy-makers facing the current crisis.

Mismanaging the eurozone crisis and COVID–19

The EU’s technocratic approach to policy-making has been a key source of legitimacy. This is problematic given the disconnect between scientific expertise and policy-making.

Consider the eurozone crisis. At its onset, the efforts of policy-makers across the EU to make sense of unfolding events were defined by two contrasting narratives on the causes of (and solutions to) the crisis. The first was a ‘morality tale’: fiscally irresponsible eurozone member states, promptly labelled ‘PIIGS’, were to blame for jeopardizing the eurozone with their extravagance and excessively generous welfare states. This narrative labelled Greece and other ‘peripheral’ member states as ‘fiscal sinners’, as opposed to the virtuous ‘core’ eurozone countries led by Germany. A second, less prevalent, narrative pointed to the deep-seated, structural causes of the crisis. When there was still room for manoeuvre, EU policy-makers — especially those from ‘core’ member states — chose to listen to ideologically similar experts. They misunderstood the problem they were facing, intervened too late and when they did, resorted to the classic ‘ordoliberal’ toolkit of strict fiscal discipline without considering other reforms — such us the introduction of ‘eurobonds’ — that could have helped prevent future crises.

While the eurozone crisis had a dominant narrative, the initial EU response to COVID–19 was disjointed. At the onset of the pandemic the EU and its member states failed to grasp the severity of the situation. Consequently, they also failed to foresee the risks of an uncoordinated response by deeply integrated countries with almost non-existent internal borders. In its risk assessment released on 22 January 2020, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) acknowledged ‘considerable uncertainties in assessing the risk of this event, due to lack of detailed epidemiological analyses’. This was interpreted by policy-makers as a reassurance, rather than a sign to act. Even accounting for the absence of a centralized institutional framework that could facilitate a decisive response throughout the EU, there was a leadership failure in the early, critical stages of the emergency. Both the Commission and the European Council failed to provide a cohesive response as the crisis unfolded. Their failure to provide a coherent account of the crisis then enabled contradictory definitions of the danger to proliferate, preventing a decisive response.

The role of academic analysis in crisis management

In both cases, the hubris of academic analyses also contributed to policy failures.

Ironically, one of the most cited studies used by pro-austerity policy-makers during the eurozone crisis, ‘Growth in a time of debt’ by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, was found to be seriously flawed owing to data omissions and basic coding errors. To make matters worse, the flaws were uncovered by a student from the University of Massachusetts Amherst who had been asked to replicate the study as part of his homework. This episode was a powerful reminder that economics is far from an exact science and showed how easy it is for academic analyses to be misrepresented by politicians and commentators across the political spectrum.

The problem of the politicization of scientific expertise became all the more evident in the context of the COVID–19 pandemic. While ‘science-based decision-making’ has become a synonym for good governance, there were important differences in how policy-makers ‘recruited’ and interacted with scientific advisers across the EU which created a disconnect.

The void left by the lack of an EU-wide narrative on the pandemic was quickly filled by a variety of interpretations and policies across the EU. Indeed, many health experts consulted by member state governments based their advice on hypotheses that later proved to be unsubstantiated. For example, some member states initially pursued ‘herd immunity’ by natural infection, on the basis of technical advice that was either misunderstood or simply flawed.

Lessons for the EU

What should the EU take away from these crises? Ideally, comprehensive reforms — such as the introduction of an ‘emergency constitution’ — would be required to equip the EU with the competences and tools needed for effective crisis management. Yet realistically, considering the wave of Euroscepticism sweeping the EU, major revisions of the treaties leading to further transfers of sovereignty are unlikely.

In the absence of such reforms, the only option left to policy-makers will be to seek a pragmatic interaction between governments and institutions in the spirit of what Angela Merkel once defined as the ‘Union model’.

In doing this, EU policy-makers should scrutinize the implications of the crisis narratives they adopt and watch out for issues surrounding the soundness of scientific analysis as well as potential breakdowns between expert opinion and policy advice. Which are the scientific advisers whose expertise they choose to follow, and why? Is there a way to avoid or at least minimize the politicization of such expertise? Finding convincing answers to these uncomfortable questions will be crucial to face the energy and food crisis looming over the EU.

Conclusion

Failure to effectively engage with expertise in a non-politicized way has been a consistent source of problems in EU crisis intervention. Indeed, only by adopting a considered and consistent approach to engagement with expertise can the EU respond effectively to future crises as well as those facing it today.

Cecilia Emma Sottilotta is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome, and Visiting Professor at the EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies Department of the College of Europe, Bruges.

Her article ‘How not to manage crises in the European Union’ was published in the September 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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